Cashless Part Two

Screen Shot 2019-09-09 at 9.56.00 AM

An interesting follow up to my last entry on the dangers of going cashless: A few days ago, I went to a Sweetgreen, the fast-food salad place. As I took out cash to pay for my order, I was informed that my cash was no good, credit cards only. I had totally forgotten that Sweetgreen was on the list of cashless offenders! Too late to turn back, my delicious salad  already in hand, I reluctantly handed over my credit card. What the hell, I was starving! But I made a note to myself to write the management later.

Here’s how that went:

Dear Sweetgreen,
I just had a delicious meal at one of your establishments in NYC and would love to keep patronizing you. But I won’t unless you change your cashless policy. Which I hope you do. My thoughts are better expressed in the blog post I wrote that I include here.

Hello Peter,

Thank you for your thoughts on a cashless Sweetgreen. I am passing your message directly to our Operations team leading this program. We are really open and eager to listen to feedback from guests like yourself. We will be taking guest comments into great consideration as we reflect on the impact of this change and the best way we can support you moving forward. In the meantime, I would love to tell you a little bit about why we decided to go cashless.

Here at Sweetgreen, we operate on five core values, three of which speak directly to this initiative: win, win, win, think sustainably and make an impact. We want to create solutions where the company wins, the customer wins, and the community wins. Having a cashless store improves the guest experience by increasing the speed of service for our guests and promoting sanitation through the removal of cash handling. Cashless payments are more sustainable, saving over 100k driving miles (and gas) per year by armored trucks and 500lbs of paper. Removing cash processing from our stores also frees up hours for managers to spend coaching team members and interacting with guests. Moreover, employees are all the more safer without cash present in the store.

Thanks again for reaching out to us and sharing your feedback. We look forward to continuing the conversation with you.




Hi Jennifer,

I think those are all valid and understandable reasons for going cashless. And yet I still firmly believe the dangers outweigh the positives in ways that transcend practical considerations. Perhaps when there are cashless methods that don’t involve data tracking I will come around. But as things are currently constituted, I will not continue to patronize Sweetgreen (as much as I love the food), and I will encourage others to follow suit. I really hope that at the corporate level you concede that profitability shouldn’t be the only consideration—especially for a company that I believe wants to be thought of as socially conscious.





Hi Peter,

Thank you so much for your thoughtful feedback. We really appreciate you reaching out to us with your feedback and ideas. As a young and continuously growing company, we love to hear what our customers have to say and we take every suggestion and criticism very seriously. While we went cashless a couple years go for a few key reasons, we’re now working on getting cash back into all locations by the end of the year. Your feedback is the key ingredient so i’m passing this message to the right people on our team for review.



I don’t know if Sweetgreen will actually follow through, but the mere fact of this dialogue is encouraging to me. We can have an impact!


The Dangers of Going Cashless

Screen Shot 2019-03-09 at 1.13.45 PM

A few weeks ago, I bought my wife a Valentine’s Day gift at a neighborhood store called Huckberry.  I’d been planning to pay in cash, since my poker bankroll was flush from a good week at the tables, but when I started peeling off a couple of hundred dollar bills, the Metrollenial at the register said, “I’m sorry, sir, we don’t take cash. Do you have a card?”

I shrugged, mildly annoyed, and dug out my card to pay. But later on, back home, I began to consider the implications of what had happened. This wasn’t my first encounter with retail stores that wouldn’t take cash. David Chang has gone the cashless route, as has Dos Toros, Blue Stone Lane, Shake Shack and Sweetgreen among others. A lot of people, myself included, probably haven’t given much thought to what this all portends. But pondering it harder, I’ve decided it ain’t good. In fact, it’s downright dangerous, one more nail in the authoritorian coffin the corporations are building around us.

Things are already Orwellian enough, what with the internet and iphones collecting our data and stealing our privacy, our TVs and smart refrigerators listening to our every conversation, not to mention video cameras watching us from street corners and in office buildings, stores and restaurants. Maybe the co-opting of financial privacy on top of this doesn’t seem like such a big deal—but I’m actually pretty sure it is. Once the privacy that cash affords is taken from us, we’ll have lost our last and most important safeguard against totalitarianism. Think about it: if every financial transaction we engage in is a matter of record, then any interested party can know our every secret, whether it be the periodicals we buy, or where we get our morning coffee and bagel, or who we’re borrowing money from or paying to clean our apartment. Would knowing that our every financial transaction was being recorded discourage us from doing things that were illegal or immoral? Maybe. Probably. And I can see where to a lot of people that might not seem like a bad thing. Which it isn’t—unless they value their freedom and privacy. I mean, Singapore has the lowest crime rate in the world, and is probably a great place to live in many ways if you don’t care about free speech.

If we go cashless, it means if I want to bet on a baseball game or go to a massage parlor or buy ecstasy or have an affair, the government’s gonna know. If we go cashless and I want to buy art from an artist, food from a grower, or babysitting services from a teenaged kid, I’ll be required to have them process a card or an app on my phone. As vendors, they’ll then be obligated to pay a service fee to a bank. That’s right, my 12-year-old daughter will be giving part of her babysitting earnings to Mastercard. Worse, if things in this country get to the point where violent revolution is the only remedy, how will we fund it if all financial transactions are recorded and known?

On a more human level, what about poor people in a cashless society? How will they pay for things if they don’t have a credit or bank card? What will happen to a beggar? Will he swipe your credit card on his iPhone attachment if you want to give him a quarter? I’m not kidding. This is a serious question.

In recent weeks,  New Jersey and Philadelphia have passed laws prohibiting cashless stores, and four more cities, New York,  Chicago, San Francisco and Washington D.C., are contemplating doing so. Will this become a national trend or movement? I certainly hope so. But in the meantime, I have made a personal decision that I will herewith boycott all stores and institutions that don’t accept cash, after offering them an explanation of why I’m doing so. I suggest you all join me in this.

Because unless you’re cool with the government and corporations (and, really, is there a difference any more?) knowing even more about you than they already do, I don’t see a good alternative.


Let’s Call It What It Is

Screen Shot 2018-11-05 at 10.34.19 AM

It’s been months since I’ve written here. I think I’ve been drowning, as so many of us have, in the constant storm of news that each day brings some new horror. School shootings. Voter suppression. Natural disasters caused by climate change. A synagogue massacre. A yoga studio massacre. Bombs sent to Obama, CNN and other Trump critics. It’s all overwhelming, disorienting, terrifying.

And yet apparently many American citizens look at these things and see them as acceptable losses in a political war they are determined to win no matter the cost. Some are no doubt cynical and greedy opportunists who know exactly what is happening but don’t care because they think it doesn’t affect them, or they don’t care because in the short-term there are seeming benefits and it is easy to find rationales for looking the other way; some are openly racist and sexist, ecstatic to see their views embraced by elected leaders, some are tribalists who secretly hanker for fascism though they would never call it that; and then are those who find these terrible daily events as upsetting as the rest of us but because they believe what they see and hear on Fox News have fallen prey to a form of willful blindness. All of them, whether cynical or warped or in denial, seem only too happy to pin the blame for our troubles on a caravan of refugees a thousand miles away, or more distressingly on the victims of the shootings and mail bombs themselves. They cry “False Flag!” as if this string of horrors has been staged by “crisis actors,” part of a leftwing plot to take away their guns, take away their Congress, take away the preening conman they mistakenly think is one of their own.

Here, on the eve of the election, an election the outcome of which I consider more crucial to our future than any event to in my lifetime (with the possible exception of the Cuban Missile Crisis), it is abundantly clear to me that the real terrorism that we have been warned about and constantly reminded of, is in fact already happening here in America, perpetrated by American citizens, right-wing extremist crazies wound up and given license by the inflammatory nationalistic rhetoric of our president and his enablers, by their corporate sponsors, by the gun manufacturers and the NRA who have armed them to the teeth, by the propaganda spreaders who work in near lock-step and include Vladimir Putin, Trump, Robert Mercer, Rupert Murdoch and a host of other vicious greedy monsters who fully understand the violence and horror their lies and demagoguery provoke, but don’t care, considering the casualties to be acceptable losses, useful in the way that terrorist acts are always useful to those who rely on fear as a form of manipulation. And it is working, oh yes, it is working! We are terrified and terrorized, close to despair. Most of us still can’t quite believing that this is happening, can happen, here, in our America.

Creeping fascism is here and no longer creeping. Freedom is precarious. I can’t get over how many smart friends of mine refuse to allow the possibility that fascism could happen here, much less admit that we are already in the throes of it. Do we need more proof than the fact that a minority of the country currently holds power over a majority? That criticism isn’t tolerated or seen as healthy even within the ruling party? Tuesday may be our last chance to stave off full-blown autocracy, at which point the only recourse for those of us who see and understand the scary truth may involve measures we don’t want to contemplate, like leaving. I ran into a friend of mine the other day, whose grandparents had escaped Germany before the war but not until after their passports had been confiscated. His wife has dual citizenship in Europe, and they have already bought property abroad (lucky in that they can afford to) and have planned their escape if things go badly in the election. “I don’t want to wait until they take away my passport,” he says.

Is he overreacting? Alice and I haven’t allowed ourselves to think or plan that far ahead yet, but maybe we should. I’m sure there were many Jews in Germany in the Thirties who wish they had.

In these last hours before the election, I would like to say to my conservative friends that even if this president and administration are enacting policies that you like, even if you are profiting financially, understand that one-party rule, consolidated by voter suppression and gerrymandering, is not, and cannot ever be, a good recipe for a healthy democracy. We need checks and balances to protect us from the worst tendencies of unbridled power. When the truth is destroyed in the interest of gaining or maintaining power, when no criticism is allowed or tolerated, when “alternative facts” are used to undermine the notion of an agreed-upon reality, we have entered the world of Orwell and the Thought Police and “War is Peace” and “Freedom is Slavery” and “Ignorance is Strength,” a world where we are told to reject the evidence of our own eyes and ears, to accept as gospel what our leaders tell us.

Leading up to November 6th, in an effort to foment fear and mobilize their base, this president and his rightwing media propaganda machine are claiming that a caravan of hungry, bedraggled, desperate refugees 900 miles away is the greatest threat to our national safety. Meanwhile, people are being mass murdered in yoga studios and in temples. Children are being murdered in schools! Bombs are being sent to members of the opposition who have dared to speak out.

So I ask you, beg of you, my conservative friends, if you can’t bring yourself to vote for sanity and balance in this election, then please please please just sit this one out. Because if we keep going down the path we are on, if we deny the reality of climate change, fail to recognize the damage caused by injustice and income inequality, dehumanize those who are not exactly like us, we all will lose. Every single one of us. And to my Democratic friends, just vote! Vote like your life depends on it–because it does.


Got Your Back

Sixteen years ago, I tweaked my back moving a couch into the apartment I’d just rented on Second Place in Carroll Gardens. Alice and I were in an “off” phase in our on-and-off relationship, trying to figure things out, not doing such a great job of it. A year and a half earlier, we’d tried living together in an apartment on Butler Street. I’d gotten a job as a magazine editor and for a while things seemed to go okay. Although moving in was a big step for me, it didn’t mean I was fully ready to commit to getting married and planning a life together just yet. In some crucial ways, even though we were now living under the same roof, I kept my distance, which understandably became the source of some frustration for Alice. She made it clear that she needed more from me and that my continued ambivalence was hurtful.


I tried my best to communicate a certainty I didn’t yet have, but she wasn’t buying it, and so she asked me to move out at the beginning of September 2001, and unhappily I left. For a week, I stayed on my cousin Michael’s couch. At the end of that week, I was awakened by a rocking explosion that shook the entire building. It was the hijackers’ first plane hitting the World Trade Center. Michael and I watched from the window of his apartment as the second plane hit and the towers pancaked in a surreal funnel of smoke and debris. The next day, still in a state of shock, I left his place and moved into my aunt and uncle’s nearby apartment on Columbia Heights, which had become the family crash pad since their decision to live year-round in Provincetown.

At the time, my cousin Maggie and her then-boyfriend were staying in one of the two bedrooms, but in the paranoid post-apocalyptic shit-storm that followed the collapse of the towers, they decided to flee the city, and so for a time, I was able to camp out at Norman and Norris’ by myself, and take stock of my life and see if I could figure out where I wanted things to go.  As unsettled as I was, my situation got no better when I lost my magazine editing job along with a couple of steady freelance writing gigs I had come to count on. For a while, I decided that I would embark on a career as a rare book dealer, combining my love of books with a poker-bred knack for wheeling and dealing. Using credit and my meager savings, I started buying rare first editions on Ebay, selling them to collectors at a decent markup. As it turned out, though, it wasn’t such a great business. The best thing I can say is that I wound up with a rather nice book collection.


Fortunately, I lucked into a book collaboration with boxing trainer Teddy Atlas, who had gotten a contract for his memoir from Ecco Press. He was offering much less money than I wanted or needed, but when I met him, we hit it off, and I decided it was worth taking a risk on the project. As for Alice and me, we couldn’t seem to cut things off entirely, though we had both started seeing other people while we tried to move on with our lives.

In February of 2002, I was hard at work on the Atlas book, when my aunt Norris, whose generosity in letting me stay at the apartment in Brooklyn I in no way took for granted, informed me that I had one week to vacate the apartment for my cousin Sue and her husband Marco, who had decided to spend the next year in New York, and planned to move in. Although they wouldn’t be arriving from their home in Chile for several months, they’d agreed to spend a significant sum doing renovations and upgrades before moving in, and it was imperative that the work commence almost immediately. I understood Norris liking the idea of her apartment getting a free makeover, and I’d always been fully aware that my occupancy was temporary. Still the abruptness of my eviction took me by surprise. A week to find a new apartment? In New York City? Even if I found a suitable affordable place, what if I couldn’t move in right away? Was there no flexibility? “I’m sorry, Pete,” Norris said somewhat apologetically. “But this is what’s happening.”

By the end of the week, with the help of a broker, I somehow managed to find a move-in ready apartment on Second Place in Carroll Gardens (coincidentally, if you believe in such things, a mere two blocks from Alice’s new apartment). Norris, with Sue and Marco footing the bill, was replacing of most of her apartment’s furniture, so among other things I inherited a beloved but worn dark green velvet couch. On moving day, after everything had been unloaded into my parlor floor apartment, my cousin Stephen was helping me move the green velvet couch from one room to the other when I suddenly felt a painful twinge in my lower back.

green couch

Two weeks later, still suffering badly, I decided to try a storefront acupuncture place a few blocks away from my new digs. I lay on a massage table on my stomach while needles were inserted into my back and legs, then hooked up to a 9-volt battery. The practitioner left the room while strong currents zapped through me. It was weird and not altogether painless; it seemed to me that the current was way too strong. When I left, the pain in my back now radiated down my left leg, and had gone from about level 3 to level 8 on the pain scale. Two hours later at home, it was closer to a 10. I had never felt pain of that kind and I wasn’t sure what to do. In the end, I called an ambulance. The paramedics attempted to bring me downstairs on a stretcher, but it was agony for me to lie on my back, so I wound up having to bump down the stairs on my ass.


At the hospital, the nurses gave me Percocet, which changed nothing. It literally had zero effect. By then I was screaming for them to make the pain stop. A team of doctors and nurses rushed into the room, whispered amongst themselves, and gave me an IV drip of Dilaudid, which is a type of synthetic morphine. The Dilaudid didn’t change the level of my pain. What it did was to make me not care anymore.  I was flying without a carpet.

Three more days in the hospital didn’t seem to accomplish much more than increase my appreciation for the wonders of synthetic morphine. From a pathological standpoint there was little change. The pain did diminish slightly, but when I was discharged I was still hobbling around like Quasimodo. Back in Carroll Gardens, I remained uncomfortable, struggling to write for more than twenty minutes at a time without taking a break to lie on my back with my knees bent.


I’m pretty sure that I first heard about Dr. John Sarno from listening to the Howard Stern show. I’d never been a big Stern fan, but when I saw his movie Private Parts I became a convert. Stern credited Sarno with saving his life. He’d been plagued by back pain for most of his adult life, and had tried everything and spent tens of thousand of dollars without finding any lasting relief. It was so bad that while broadcasting his radio show he often had to lie on his back during commercial breaks. Doctors told him he needed surgery, which terrified him. He was at his wits end. Then someone turned him on to Sarno, and within two weeks of going to see him, Stern was cured. His back pain went entirely away, never to return. According to Stern, it wasn’t even necessary to see Dr. Sarno. You could just read his book and be cured. It was the information Sarno conveyed that made you better. There were no exercises, no medicines, no manipulations. In a nutshell, Sarno believed that all back pain stemmed from repressed emotions, rage above all. He wasn’t arguing that the pain wasn’t real–he attributed it to mild oxygen deprivation and reduced blood flow in the affected area–but he maintained that it wasn’t being caused by structural issues. It’s hard to explain why reading a book that explains this idea would help make the pain go away, but Sarno is very persuasive in arguing his case, and if you’re open to what he’s saying, and it makes sense to you, then the information becomes the cure.


I’m pretty skeptical by nature, but in my case I had no sooner finished reading Healing Back Pain: the Mind-Body Connection, than my back pain started to leave my body like an exorcised bad spirit. In thinking about the anger I’d been repressing, one thing did immediately jump out: I’d been furious with Norris for evicting me so abruptly, and I’d been unable to express my upset to her, in part because she’d been so generous in letting me stay in their apartment to begin with, but also because she was engaged in a long-term battle with cancer (that she would sadly succumb to years later) which made it hard for me or anyone to be critical of her in any way.

For the next decade and a half, after reading Sarno’s book, I occasionally felt twinges in my back, but I had no further episodes like the one that had landed me in the hospital. Until recently.

Sixteen years ago, when I broke up with Alice, I was leery of taking on the responsibilities of husband and father. She could have let me go, as other women had, deemed me a hopeless permanent boy who would never grow up. But for whatever reason, she couldn’t fully let go. And I couldn’t walk away, as I had so many times before. After all our back and forth, I asked her to marry me in 2005. A year later, Eden, our gorgeous brilliant Eden, was born. My life changed in profound ways, some of them predictable, some not.  I had avoided responsibility all those years in large part because I knew how seriously I took it. I still think of how, when Eden was two weeks old, we had to rush her to the emergency room because she was bleeding from her bellybutton, and that, on the way there, I said to Alice accusingly, “This is why I never wanted a child. I never wanted to care this much about anyone.”


The reality is that for me fatherhood and family has been the most profound and meaningful experience of my life. But at the same time the burden of responsibility sometimes feels suffocating. In the past couple of years especially, as I have felt not only the physical aches and pains of advancing age but also the pain of living in a time when what I do has become marginalized, the challenge of providing for my family has grown ever more daunting. This past year, I finally achieved a longtime personal ambition by finishing my first novel, but the subsequent struggle to find a home for it has been humbling in more ways than I can say.

In the midst of that particular journey, Alice and Eden and I took another kind of journey, a vacation to Italy this past spring. On our second to last night, sleeping on an unfamiliar mattress in a Florence Airbnb, I woke up at four in the morning with an achy back. I thought the pain and stiffness would abate after a day or two but it didn’t. As the pain lingered in the days and then weeks that followed, I worried that perhaps it wasn’t muscular or structural but was in fact caused by something more grave. Sadly, this is the way one’s mind works at 63. Eventually, I had an MRI that revealed a herniated disk, which in a way was a relief. I went to an osteopath. I went to a physical therapist. I took a course of the steroid Prednisone. Nothing helped. On my annual poker trip to Las Vegas, the pain grew so bad that on my way home, I had to request a wheelchair to get through McCarran airport in Vegas and then again upon landing at Kennedy.

I’m not sure why during the three months I suffered that it never occurred to me to reread Sarno. But eventually, having exhausted significant time and money on other remedies, I thought to go back to him. I couldn’t find my copy of the book, undoubtedly having given it to an ailing friend at some point. I was about to order it from Amazon but then saw that if I got a trial subscription to Audible, I could download it for free. So that’s what I did. I uploaded it to my iPhone and when I took Eden and her friend to the waterpark last Saturday, I listened to it. The narration was spoken by Sarno himself. Halfway through the three hours that it took to listen to it, as I found myself nodding with recognition at the things Sarno was saying, laughing in some places, sighing in others, the pain in my back began to subside.

Today, a week later, I am virtually pain free, looking forward to resuming playing tennis and doing yoga. The anger I’ve been repressing, the burdens I’ve been carrying, those things aren’t going away. But understanding that they’re there and that my body has been using them to distract my mind from psychic and emotional pain is the key to solving what no amount of medicine or surgery or physical therapy could. Decline and death are inevitable. But I am convinced now that the frailties of the body are actually first triggered by the mind. Sarno says we must ignore the physical pain, that if we do that and soldier on we’ll be okay. That’s what I am now trying to do as I march forward in these uncertain times, trying not to be fooled by the distractions of the body.



Who is Rich?


I’m not in the habit of shilling for friends, but please do yourself a favor and go read my buddy Matt Klam’s long-awaited (by those in the know) first novel, Who is Rich? Don’t get me wrong. I love to support my friends. But I also kind of hate it. Especially when they’re fellow writers, and especially when they’re tilling some of the same ground I do (as Gore Vidal put it, “every time a friend succeeds, something inside me dies.”) In fact, after reading Who is Rich, I told Matt that I might actually have to kill him. On the other hand, I can’t totally hold the book’s greatness against him because he spent a lot of years in the wilderness and this novel was a long time coming. Seventeen years to be exact.

It’s even longer ago that Matt and I met in Provincetown during the winter of 1993 when he was a fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center and I was spending the winter there in my uncle’s house, trying to write my own first novel. Soon after arriving in town in the cold October chill, I met Susanna Sonnenberg, who was staying a few houses down, doing pretty much the same thing I was doing, trying to figure out her life and become a real writer (which for her, like me, didn’t happen that winter but did happen later). One evening the two of us made our way over to the Work Center for the welcoming party for the new fellows, who had just arrived for their eight-month residencies. As we entered the reception area and came upon a frankly odd and scruffy  assortment of writers and artists, Susanna and I nodded at one another knowingly and said, “These are going to be our friends this winter.” We were right. Among the talented group were the late Lucy Grealy, Elizabeth McCracken, Paul Lisicky, and the man Susanna would later marry and divorce, Andrew Peterson.

Over the next few weeks and months, she and I assumed the role of honorary fellows, hanging out with our kindred spirits at the few bars and restaurants open during the offseason and having them over for dinners at our storied housesits (Susanna’s had once belonged to John Dos Passos, and mine belonged to my uncle, Norman Mailer). I don’t remember how exactly my friendship with Matt blossomed, but it’s possible we played tennis on the high school courts a couple of times before the weather got too cold, or maybe we just stayed up late drinking one night and discovered that we were a good audience for one another, appreciative of each other’s sense of humor (though he was definitely funnier). Matt was a large physical presence, tall and gangly with coat-hanger shoulders, shaggy blond curls, a big honker of a nose, slightly bugged-out eyes, and a wide and sometimes goofy grin. Though the youngest and least accomplished of the fellows at the Work Center, his status changed, practically overnight, when The New Yorker decided to buy his short story “Sam the Cat.” Giddy and full of himself but also self-deprecating and incredulous, Matt imagined a future in which writers like him would become stars on MTV, something he felt was inevitable and highly possible but also clearly ridiculous and improbable.

In the years that followed, the MTV dreams were never realized, but he did publish more stories in The New Yorker, and then a collection of them called Sam the Cat, which, when it came out, garnered a lot of attention and great reviews and prompted The New Yorker to name him to their annual list of the twenty best writers under the age of 40. By then he had married Lara, a beautiful, sharp-eyed psychotherapist, who had a bedside manner with him that was amused, cool, knowing and tolerant but with an edge. At their wedding, in Washington, D.C., only the best man fainted.

After their daughter, Pixie, was born, Matt did his share to support his family and the continuation of his literary output by teaching creative writing and doing pieces for GQ and other glossies. But several attempts at writing a novel were unsuccessful, and time just kept ticking by; the heady days of his early success were quickly receding in the rearview. Matt was still quintessentially Matt, but he felt himself drowning in the confines of domesticity and responsibility. His remedy was to look for transcendence outside his marriage. Unlike the Thomas Haden Church character in Sideways, who answers his questioning friend Miles, played by Paul Giamatti, by saying, “You don’t understand my plight,” Matt understood his plight all too well. It was that understanding, coupled with his scorching honesty about it, that became the engine of his belated but triumphant return, the fulfillment of his great early promise.


In Who is Rich?, Matt takes on the sinkhole of his missing years, the pain of his slow-motion flameout and what it turned him into, in what can only be called an act of heroic self-immolation. I get a little crazy when reading the customer reviews of the book on Amazon. A depressingly large number of readers see in the once-sort-of-famous cartoonist Rich Fischer, Matt’s narrator/stand-in, an entitled, whiny middled-aged white man who has no right to feel anything but privileged and fortunate (“Klam’s complaint festival” one calls it). Some of them accuse Matt of simply using the book to try and justify his having cheated on his wife (“A self-serving, self-centered man-boy”). A few even malign the writing itself (“sloppy, convoluted”). I suppose I can understand where reactions like these are coming from (I might call them “low-information readers”), the same way I can understand the anger and disappointment that led some people to vote for Donald Trump. But I can’t support the conclusions and am left with one thought only: They just don’t get it. Because it seems in this increasingly polarized world, people either do or they don’t. And if they don’t, nothing I say is gonna persuade them.

For everyone still with me, let me just say that what Matt has pulled off in his novel is like a magic trick inside of a magic trick. I can’t figure out how he does what he does. I can only tell you that he arranges words in unlikely combinations that read like nothing you’ve ever read before. I can tell you that his narrator is like the real-life Matt on steroids: hilarious, poignant, heartbreaking, sarcastic, knowing, naive, worldly, goofy, cutting, generous, and sometimes–make that often–all these things at once. I tried leafing through the book after I finished, to find examples of what I’m talking about, and there were literally too many to choose from. Pretty much the whole goddamn book. That’s my pull quote. The whole damn book. Every time I wanted to start underlining, I couldn’t see a place to stop. And looking up above where I’d started, I wanted to underline all that stuff too.

In fact, just opening the book randomly now, I find this passage in which Rich is describing the state of his married sex-life after the birth of his children:

“In a previous life, she bit my neck and licked my ear when we did it. After Kaya, I worried about courting her in my pajamas, with our little angel breathing down the hall, and lost focus and cringed as Robin’s patience ran out if I finished too fast or not fast enough and overstayed my welcome. Bad sex was better than nothing, but Beanie effectively ended the badness. Fuckless weeks, excused by parenting, turned weirdly okay. Like our anniversary, we weren’t sure anymore when it was supposed to happen. And, with the exception of my tongue on her clitoris every who knows when, she didn’t need to be touched. She had vibrators for that. I think she mostly thought of what I did as a way to save batteries.”

But Rich’s comic takedown of married sex is only part of his discontent. He is a man caught up in a maelstrom of conflicting desires, which become for him a kind of Venus fly trap of love, money, and success counterbalanced by what one must sacrifice to acquire them–freedom, loyalty, self-respect, time with one’s children–in short, the modern condition, in which so much is promised and so little is attainable without the sacrifice of one’s humanity.

The main action of the book takes place during a week-long workshop at an annual summer artist’s retreat where Rich has taught for years (though he now fears that even this small fruit of his early success is in jeopardy due to the appearance on the scene of a younger, more successful, less white, version of himself). Adding to his agita is a long-anticipated reunion with Amy, the woman he met at the retreat and began an affair with the previous summer. A year-long torrent of texts and emails has got them both hot and bothered and wondering where things will lead. For Rich, Amy fills the void of love and passion that his marriage no longer seems to provide, and he both desires her and feels repulsed by her, by the need she stirs in him, and by her married-to-a-billionaire other life. Here Rich’s quandary, his ambivalence about Amy and about money, is made manifest: “They lived in a monstrous stone-and-shingle masterpiece and also owned a $20 million duplex overlooking Central Park, and a ‘crappy’ place in London, and a ‘nice’ place in Chamonix. She employed a French-speaking Moroccan chef name Yasmine. I hated her life but thought I should have it.”

The reason I call what Matt has done a magic act is because, while he has a story to tell, the story does not drive the book. Language does, the abundance of acutely observed details, the descriptions of people and places. And, most important, the narrator’s ability (see below) to riff like Coltrane about what he is going through, to describe the texture of his life, to let us in on his struggle:

“We’d put a lot into our emails. It was a gigantic pain in the ass. If either of us slacked off, the other one got offended. You had be timely and consistently thoughtful. Although it was nice knowing that on nights when I couldn’t sleep, at least someone out there was listening. When I started spiraling into my own black hole, or when Beanie went loco at two a.m., or when Kaya cried because her pillow was too hot, or when the magazine sent back my drawing thirty-seven times for revisions and then killed it, or when I received actual death threats for a cartoon I drew mocking military methods of interrogation, or when the dental surgeon sent me a bill for two thousand nine hundred fucking dollars, or the neighbors hated me because my car blew clouds of whitish-blackish smoke, or when Robin said I tasted like something she had for dinner that she didn’t feel like tasting again, when I thought nobody would ever want me again, that I’d never crawl into bed with someone and fall into her arms, grateful, protected, in love–I could say it, through that doohickey in my pocket, and by the power of instantaneous electronic transmission it would find her, rising out of a dead sleep in the middle of the night, and she’d zap back a little something to cheer me up, and that would be enough.”

So like I said, I may hate my old friend a little for being able to write like a virtuoso and slay me with what he knows not just about his life but about my life, everyone’s life, about marriage and money and work and kids and all the important things that we think we know but don’t really understand until someone like Matt points out something about us we felt but hadn’t recognized–e.g. “the increasing awkwardness of disrobing in front of my wife”–and we go, “Holy shit!” So yes, fuck that guy, but also I love him and admire him. I love him for the way he digs down deep into the uncomfortable innards of his ugliest urges, his most primal needs, and finds the truth there and makes the truth funny and hot to the touch and dangerous and necessary. And I love him because he then has the balls to put it out there for any friend or stranger to see. And I love him because even if I were a stranger, I’d want to be his friend.




Why I’ll Probably be Blogging More


The last time I sat down to write an entry here, I was certain that I was revving up again and would be penning one of these entries on a regular and ongoing basis. However, that was before the first round of submissions on my novel had received a disquieting chorus of nays. Let me amend that: the response wasn’t all negative. We heard back from a few editors who actually liked the book but couldn’t see a way to publish it or couldn’t get support in house. My main takeaway was that things out there in bookland were as bleak as I’d heard. Rather than kicking my nonexistent dog or lying down in bed for a week, I decided to put aside the new novel I had started and dive back into the old one. I thought I might spend a couple of weeks on it. Somehow that turned into two months.

Now I’m finished, and next week the revised manuscript goes out again. Hopefully, the results will be different this time. My agent, even before she saw the new rewrite, was upbeat when we talked. She said, “We’re going to sell this book.” A writer friend I talked with yesterday said she received 39 rejections on her last book before someone finally said Yes. I’ve only had 14 No’s, so I guess I’m ahead of the game.

Last night, I went back and read the beginning of my new novel, the one I put aside for two months. I was encouraged by what I read. But instead of getting back to work, I’ve been procrastinating all day today.  I’ve spent time listening to the Allman Brothers live at the Fillmore East on Youtube (the book is set in the 1970s). I’ve spent time reading other people’s novels. I’ve spent time making notes. I have not spent time writing. Am I afraid? Well, let’s put it this way: it’s a little bit like riding the chairlift up the mountain for the first run of the season. You get off the lift. You stand there for a while on the ridge, adjusting your boots and your gloves and staring down the mountain. You know you’re going to push off eventually and head down that mountain, but you’re just not quite ready, not yet, so you take another few seconds, make a few more adjustments…and then…

Well, now you know why I’m here.


What’s going to happen to us?



People are getting ill and dying. Friends of mine. They’re having strokes, succumbing to cancer, developing bad stomachs, having trouble sleeping. Sure, we’re all getting older. This stuff happens. But not at the rate at which it seems, in my very unscientific study, to be afflicting us. Is this Trump’s fault? I know there’s a lot of anxiety because of him. A lot of stress. Are we going to wind up in a nuclear war? A civil war? A fascist state? A water world? A new ice age? All of these things seem increasingly possible. I know I’ve been losing sleep. It’s especially tough if you have young children. What kind of world have we brought them into? What are we leaving them?

A lot has been written, a lot said, in connection with Trump’s most recent atrocity, his refusal to stand up or speak out in a clear and forceful way about the events in Charlottesville that cost a young woman her life and left many others injured.

He’s an abomination, a clear threat to our continued survival. At the same time, I feel like we are playing right into the hands of the true enemy when we focus all our energy on Trump himself and the emotionality of “identity politics.” The “owners,” as George Carlin called the richest Americans, want nothing more than for us to focus our anger on one another. They want us to take our eye off the ball. Make no mistake about it, as despicable as neo-Nazis and white supremacists are, they’re not the real enemy. They have always existed and in all likelihood always will exist. They should certainly be called out and shunned. But our real enemy is economic inequality. The real enemy is the unfair influence of a tiny minority of society, the superrich 1%, owners of corporate America, who are stealing the rest of us blind and trying to continue their thievery while we focus our ire not on them but on each other. The symbolism of Confederate statues and flags, while offensive, is not worthy of our energy right now. As Yaphet Kotto said about the company owners in his stirring rant against them in the movie Blue Collar, “They’ll do anything to keep you on the line. They pit the lifers against the new boys, the old against the young, the black against the white—everybody—to keep us in our place.”

I don’t know how we defeat the oligarchy. The game is so rigged now – and they’ve succeeded so spectacularly in pitting half the country against the other half – that it’s hard to see a way to overcome the corruption, to elect representatives who truly represent the people’s interests and not theirs. It’s hard to see a way for the general populace to be properly educated, to have their most basic needs met, so that they’re not focused on the wrong things, on issues that don’t actually address their concerns. The owners count on ignorance and petty prejudices, emotions that they can manipulate. In this regard, Trump has been a useful foil and distraction. The greed of the Kochs and the Mercers is so large that even at the risk of the planet and of their own safety, the urge to keep acquiring drives them to keep up their unholy plunder. They build their bunkers and hide their assets in case we get wise and the whole thing tumbles down. But they hope that by the time the revolution comes, or nuclear war, or the rising of the seas, they’ll be long gone, and only their children will have to suffer.


In Search of Lost Time


For the first time in a year, I have some time on my hands. Such a funny phrase that. I have actually had 62 years of time on my hands. But I guess what I mean to say is free time. A year ago, I announced in this blog that I had finished a draft of my first novel. Little did I suspect, that it would be almost a full year later that the novel would actually begin to feel “finished.” Or at least as finished as it can feel at this point. Finished to the point of giving it to an agent who is going to take it out into the world and I hope find a home for it. I think that I have never better understood Balzac, who was famous for making changes right up to and past the time one of his novels was at the printer. It’s hard to stop trying to improve the thing or to let it go.

How did a year pass though? I was astonished just now when I looked back and saw that the second to last entry I wrote here, You. Complete Me, about finishing a first draft, was written in May 2016. What the fuck? But it all goes hand in hand with the ever accelerating clock. Life is flying by. Flying the fuck by.

That encroaching sense of and acquaintance with mortality has been underlined by two mortal events in the past year: the death of my dad and the death of my dear friend Josh Gilbert. To my surprise, the death of my friend Josh in some ways hit me harder. Obviously my dad was my dad. But I had been bracing for his death and mourning his loss for years, ever since his dementia had started making it harder for us to have the kind of deep dive conversations that I’d always loved having with him. That served as a pre-loss loss. It helped to prepare for the real and irrevocable loss that was to follow. But with Josh, who was younger than me, there was no preparatory mourning. Even though he had a particularly rare and nasty form of cancer and had it for three years, I never once doubted that he was going to beat it. He was a fucking warrior, a honey badger in human form, a vital subversive madman whom I loved, and when I arrived at the hospital, five minutes too late, I could not believe that I was looking at his dead lifeless face. It didn’t compute. It couldn’t be. He was too alive to be dead.

Johs and Henry

Not having him around in physical form, not having him accessible, hurt more than I ever imagined it would. He lived right across the street from me and for the past few years I had frequently stopped off at his cluttered third-floor walkup after dropping Eden at school. Coffees in hand, we’d talk about writing and work and love and movies and the madness of the world and what it meant to be a parent in this day and age. Josh left behind a young son, Henry, whom he had adopted with his longtime girlfriend Cheryl before he got sick and before they stopped trying to make their incredibly complicated relationship work. More than anything, it was Henry who made me think that Josh would never succumb. He wanted so much to live for Henry.

I am not alone in missing him, of course. Along with Henry and his family, Josh had more best friends than anyone I’ve ever known. At his memorial, the unifying theme was that everyone who got up to speak, and there were many and from all over the country, all thought they were Josh’s best friend. He had that gift of making you feel special and loved and that his connection with you was unlike his connection with anyone else.

I didn’t start out planning to write here about Josh, mostly because all I could hope to do here is capture a small part of him (and to paraphrase my uncle, sometimes it’s better to write only a few sentences because anything more would require a novel), but I will tell you that Josh was the greatest champion anybody could ever have, and I know that if he were still alive, no matter what his own fight demanded, he’d summon the energy to fight for my novel too, and with the same ferocity he brought to his own battles. In my mind, I can hear him strategizing with me,  thinking of connections, of people he knew, saying, “Don’t worry, Bub (he called everyone Bub and Chief), we’re going to figure out a way to get someone to buy this.”


More than his help and support and the undoubtedly amazing advice he’d give me for making the book better, what I’ll miss, what I do miss, is his unwavering belief. Josh believed in the healing power of art. But more than that, he believed in friendship. He believed in his best friends. All several hundred of us.



It’s been months since my last entry here and a lot has happened in that time. I finished my novel, for one thing. But the other thing is that my dad died.

He took a fall back in July and broke his hip, which is what precipitated his eventual demise. But the truth is that he actually recovered enough to be discharged from the hospital. I think it’s only when he realized that he was going to be forced to use a bedpan going forward that he decided that he’d had enough. I’m pretty sure that’s what I would have been thinking, at any rate. Up until then, despite suffering from dementia, he was still finding enough pleasure in living to keep him going.

This past Sunday, we had a memorial celebration of his life, and what follows are the words that I chose to honor him with:

Dad and Peter 1955

It’s obviously impossible to convey the richness and fullness of the man I called my father in a few sentences, or paragraphs or even pages. All I know is that I was lucky to have a father like him for as long as I did, which, since he was almost 96, was a fair stretch of time, even if it wasn’t enough. I also have to say that these last few years, when his dementia made it difficult for us to have the kind of meaningful dialogue that we’d always had, were tough for me. I really missed our conversations. I’d always counted on his feedback, his pushback, his opinions about everything. He still lit up whenever he saw me. He still had the same sweetness he’d always had. His essence was there, and I was grateful to still be able to get him to laugh. But I missed the back and forth, being able to deep dive into things and analyze and discuss them.

Now that he’s gone, I miss that even more, but I’m also noticing the absence of his smile, that great and contagious laugh. I admit that I sometimes poked fun at him just to hear that laugh, because he was almost always able to laugh at himself, at his foibles. In fact, in the hospital during the last week of his life, I was trying to explain something to him, and he said, “You know, Pete, I used to be a lot smarter than people understood, and now I’m a lot dumber than they know.”

The other quality Dad kept until the very end was his underlying optimism. I don’t mean that in a Pollyanna way. Far from it. Before complex conversations became too challenging for him to process, we could sometimes get pretty gloomy talking about things both trivial and large, from the state of the Mets to the state of the world, but Dad was an eternal optimist in the sense that his spirit was unsinkable. He liked living, and he liked to express his opinion both about life’s bounty and life’s dreck, often with a thumbs-up or thumbs-down (long before Siskel and Ebert, by the way). Even at the end, as long as there was a lobster roll or piece of good chocolate to be consumed and appreciated, then whatever else might be wrong didn’t matter.

Dad had a phrase that he often uttered, “La vie est dure,” which literally translates to “Life is hard.” And his life, especially the latter part of it, wasn’t always easy. Twenty years ago, I wrote about the deteriorating conditions of the house on Spring Valley Road that he and my beloved stepmother Libby lived in for so many years. I wrote about the many jobs that he was forced to take during his 70s and into his 80s, jobs that I know he would have preferred not to do at an age when most men would have been enjoying their retirement. Later on, there were health problems. With him, and then of course with Libby. But through all of it, even up to the very end, he remained cheerful and upbeat.

That, more than anything, is his legacy to me, to my sister Kate, to his grandchildren, to all of us here, the idea that life can be hard but is without doubt worth living.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Dad was multifarious. His mind had many twists and turns, hidden corridors, trap doors. I would sometimes get frustrated with him, because in conversation he invariably and sometimes maddeningly took turns here and turns there, rarely going in a straight line from point A to point B. He liked to detour, to go off on tangents. He was not a linear thinker. I once kidded him that he should write a book of short stories and call it Stories Without a Point.

But even if I sometimes got frustrated with him, I always wanted to understand him. In my late teens and early 20s, we took to having regular lunches. It was something I always looked forward to. When he was working at Bantam Books, he took me to the Japanese restaurants on 47th street and introduced me to sushi, pleased to be able to explain how it all worked and what things were called and what were his favorite kinds of fish. He had a favorite sushi chef, who at Dad’s urging elaborated on what he was doing and how he’d been taught. Dad loved being an aficionado.

Another place we often went was Alfredo’s restaurant on Hudson Street. We were among the first customers there when it opened, and we had many lunches there over the years. There was one dish, Tortellini della Nonna, that was my favorite. I came to think of it as Tortellini della Poppa. It was at Alfredo’s that I conducted a number of interviews with Dad for a biographical portrait that I was writing about him for a psychology class at Harvard.

One of the things I learned in the course of interviewing him was that when he didn’t get into Harvard, himself, his father Jack Alson said to him “I paid for champagne and I got beer.” It was a remark that Dad took to heart and really never got over. But when I dug deeper and tried to contextualize it, I discovered that Jack had taken Dad out of Boys High and sent him to Brooklyn Poly Prep for a year because he knew that the headmaster at Poly Prep had a relationship with someone in admissions at Harvard. Unfortunately, it turned out that the headmaster’s contact was on sabbatical that year, so the guy wasn’t able to pull the necessary strings to get Dad in. It wasn’t until I got around to writing the biography that I realized that Jack wasn’t talking about Dad when he made the beer remark, but was actually talking about Poly Prep.

All of which is to say, relationships between fathers and sons can be tricky. Dad and I were alike in many ways and the fact of that sometimes proved problematical. I was lucky enough, for example, to inherit some of his athletic prowess, his hand-eye coordination, his competitive fire. This played out with us in all things athletic, especially on the tennis court.

Dad was a great tennis player, a huge fan of the game. He’d played in high school and with his brother, Ernie, and he liked to tell the story of how he once beat a highly ranked player on a wooden indoor court because the ball skidded and his opponent couldn’t get used to the bounce. He took me to my first U.S. Open in 1966 when it was still played on the grass at Forest Hills. As with the sushi, he derived immense satisfaction in sharing his knowledge, expertise and love of the game.

But when he played tennis with me, there was no coddling or going easy. He simply refused to lose to me, even years after I’d actually surpassed him in ability. I’d throw tantrums and he’d laugh and critique my game, and tell me what I was doing wrong. I remember well the first time I ever beat him. He was miffed but proud of me at the same time.

Years later, when I was in my forties and he was in his late seventies, we beat a couple of top-flight players in a club match. That was one of our best days together ever. He never got tired of talking about it.

Pete, Dad tennis 2


Our father-son rivalry was even more charged around writing than it was around tennis. As close as we were, the writing—his and mine—caused us difficulties, starting around the time I was 20, until I was 38 and sold my first book. We talked about craft all the time, debating the best way to tell a story, the importance of a good opening. He was a fount of advice and wisdom and often sent me letters with ideas for novels that I should write. He encouraged me to push the envelope in my writing, to go big, to not be afraid to say “fuck you” to the reader.


Much of his advice was good. It was just when we got down to actual cases that we ran into difficulties.

Part of the problem was that he was caught up in writing a novel himself that he spent decades on and was never able to finish. The book had begun as an instructional manual that he was co-authoring with a tennis teaching pro named George Edis. Scribner’s was supposed to publish the book, but something went wrong, I can’t remember what, and the book was killed at the eleventh hour. Dad decided to make lemonade out of his lemon by turning the instructional book into a novel. It gradually evolved into a story about the invention of tennis, and somewhere in writing it, he got lost.

Dad at work

One thing Dad was never at a loss for, though, was an opinion. Because he was my El Exigente on just about everything—you remember that coffee commercial, “I choose only the best beans?”—and because I desperately wanted his approval, his thumbs up, I could be easily devastated by his criticism.

I don’t think he ever consciously intended to discourage me, but too often that was the effect of his words. I abandoned numerous projects, including a couple of novels, after he said things to me indicating that he thought I could do better. No doubt, he was right. But I didn’t find it helpful. And so there came a time—as I say, this was the only real rift or difficulty we ever had—when I told him that I would never again show him any of my writing until it was published. It was painful to tell him that. I think he was hurt. But he said he understood. Incredibly, the gambit worked! He never said another critical thing to me about my writing. Not until near the very end of his life—which I’ll tell you about in a second.

No, the fact is, he read all of my articles and books after they were published, and he was as proud and as full of praise for them as could be. And our relationship improved after that and was never strained or rocky again.

The one time I did go back on my vow never to show him anything came in the hospital, near the end. Dad had defied all the doctors’ predictions and come back from the brink. I was with him in ICU late one night, and we were having a lively conversation, and he was asking me about my novel, a draft of which I’d just completed. Moved by his interest and just the fact that at that point he was able to express it, I said, “I can show you the opening to the book.” It so happened I had my computer with me, and I flipped it open and began reading the first chapter to him.

He actually lifted the computer out of my hands at that point and held it up in front of him and silently read what I’d written, nodding in approval and smiling. But the next morning when I came back to visit, he said, “You know, I’ve been thinking about the beginning to your novel, Pete. I think it needs work.”

I laughed out loud. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Understanding that with his dementia it wasn’t even possible that he’d remembered, I said, “Dad, do you even remember what you read?”

He smiled and shrugged helplessly and amiably.

“Here,” I said, and opened my computer and read him the first few sentences again.

He listened, and then said, “You’re right. It’s good.”

And I had to laugh again. The old leopard wasn’t going to change his spots.

Though Dad never finished his own novel, and I’m sure judged himself harshly for that, and yes there was a time when I might have too, I don’t any more. I look at his life, and I think about the pleasure he found in things small and large, in the way he could name a certain bird in a faraway tree that he could see but almost no one else could, in that wonderful suspended moment when a tennis ball is in the air about to be struck, in the sublime garlicky taste of escargot, or the way an image in a poem grabs your imagination and won’t let go, in the pleasure of being able to explain to your son, when he asks, that an Objective Correlative is “that which best illustrates through action the thesis or premise of something.”

Above all, I think about the great pleasure he took in loving—my sister Kate, me, and especially his lovely Libby. I was lucky enough to have had a ringside seat for the early days of their great romance, sitting in the back of a convertible Austin Healey 3000, at the age of seven with two Welsh Corgis, as we ate, drank and drove our way through Europe in the summer of 1962. We even had a soundtrack, the title song from Melina Mercouri’s Never on Sunday. We whistled it all through the cobbled streets of Rome and along the coast roads of the Mediterranean.

Dad and Lib

The life that followed might have had its twists and turns; it might not have always been as fabulous and romantic as that magical time. But Dad’s love for Libby and her love for him endured, through thick and thin, over many, many years. And wherever they are now, on their continuing journey, I just want to picture them, riding in a blue Austin Healey with the top down toward a horizon that never ends.

Austin Healey







You. Complete Me



Back in January I wrote that I thought I would be able to finish my novel by putting in a solid month of work. I suppose the general rule of thumb is that you need to take an estimate like that and multiply it by four (or, given my history, by infinity). Still, I actually think I would have been able to do it if life had not intervened; there were a number of distractions, foremost among them Alice’s new job as a writer for the TV show Billions, which forced me to assume more childcare duties and various other responsibilities, significantly compromising my daily writing time.

Mind you, no complaints on this front (because who wouldn’t want their significant other to land an amazing job?), but one month turned into four. Then, this past Saturday, to my delight and astonishment, I actually got there. I completed what I set out to do seven years–or more accurately five decades–ago. I won’t say I finished my novel (because as we all know they’re never finished). But I reached the end of a draft. I wrote the final sentence of the first actual novel I have ever managed to “complete.”

If you had told me when I was  19 and embarking on my maiden fictive voyage that I wouldn’t reach the far shore until I was 61, I would have seriously questioned your sanity–just as you might now question mine. Seriously, who keeps sailing into the same hurricane-force headwind for 42 years? And why?

Alice, in fact, asked me that very thing. “You’ve written memoirs and biographies. You’ve proven to yourself that you could write and publish a book. Why was it so goddamn important to you to write a novel?”

I tried to explain. “Reading novels,” I began, “is what made me want to become a writer in the first place. That’s no small thing. Every single book that made an impact on me in my teens and twenties was a novel (with the exception of Frank Conroy’s Stop/Time–a memoir that read like a novel). I wanted to be able to do to other people  what those writers did to me. God, I wanted to be able to do that!”

The problem was, writing a novel turned out to be hard. Really hard. Harder than Chinese Algebra, as Tom Waits once said about love. So why did I persist? My explanation to Alice though true, somehow doesn’t really explain my doggedness. Maybe nothing does.

I spent six years on my second crack at a novel before finally abandoning it on my 30th birthday. Over the years, though I never again spent as much time on any one effort until the present one, I cumulatively spent at least half my life in wheel-spinning futility. Today, the bodies and pages of these aborted efforts litter the road behind me like casualties of war. Until now, the novel always won the war and I always lost.

I came to admire anyone who could start and finish a novel, no matter how bad the end result. In some ways, it seemed to me that it was even harder and took more character to finish writing a bad novel than a good one. I’ve since realized I was probably wrong on that count. The truth is, most bad writers tend to be too sure of themselves; they’re insulated from self-doubt, which is actually helpful in getting to the end.

One of the reasons the current book took me seven years to complete is that I started it over from page one at least three times. Oh, there were reasons that went beyond the usual self-loathing and flagging conviction. The interruption of a full-time job and a toddler, the necessity to make money–I’d come back to the book after time away and find that I needed to start anew just to find my way back in. Yes, this is rationalization. Still….If you want to be kind to me, you’ll allow that it’s only taken me two years to actually complete my first draft, since that’s the last time I persuaded myself that I needed to start over from the beginning.

I’m proud of myself for having finally broken through the paper ceiling this time. I also feel a bit embarrassed and ashamed, not least because I’m not really done. My plan, now that I’ve finished this draft is to wait a few weeks, then take a deep breath and read it through, from page 1 to page 298 where it ends (short, right? After all this time I ought to have written Ulysses or Magic Mountain–or at least some overly long tome that would help prop open a door). I already know that the editor in me will see both good and bad in what I’ve done, and will have strong opinions about what to do next. I actually look forward to that. I look forward to deepening the characters, shading them, cutting, refining, adding, rearranging, etc. I’m guessing it will take me at least a couple of months to do what I need to do. In fact, better multiply that by at least two, given my track record. After I’ve done what I can do, I’ll give it to one or two people I trust, who will I hope have the necessary objectivity to tell me what I should do after that.

What I feel right now, honestly, is a sense of relief. A monkey off my back. I hope the book will ultimately be seen as worthwhile and publishable. I hope that it will be read. I truly hope that at least one person will read it and have the same experience I had when I read books like Dog Soldiers and The Postman Always Rings Twice and The Sun Also Rises and The Moviegoer; that it will inspire them, that it will make them want to write a novel themselves, that it will make them want to put themselves through the same kind of torture that I have put myself through all these years.

Only then will I truly feel that the circle is complete.